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At Schell Games, culture is the antidote to crunch and conflict

CEO Jesse Schell and four of the studio's original executives discuss the importance of stability, team-building, and open communication

In 2004, Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell gathered a few of his friends and colleagues together to form a work-for-hire studio -- 15 years later, he and four of those original executives are still there.

The four are VP of art Reagan Heller, principal design manager Shawn Patton, principal engineer Jason Pratt, and senior engineering manager Robert Gordon, who along with Schell are responsible for a company that does a mix of work-for-hire projects and original IP, and employs around 125 people.

In an industry known for volatility, Schell Games has found success in relying on its work-for-hire roots to support more ambitious projects using its own IP. Schell says the breakdown of the studio's work is something like 70% to 80% work-for-hire and 20% to 30% own IP, which "has the advantage of being very, very stable."

That stability has afforded Schell Games the ability to brag that it's never laid anyone off because, as Schell puts it, "Uh oh, we couldn't make payroll."

"Stability is not a priority at many studios," he continues. "Getting to the next big hit is much more important. There are plenty of studios that put half their jobs on the line and just hope it works out. We don't do that. We like to save up our money first, and then bring in a new person. And if it doesn't work out, that's okay, because we have enough work and savings to take care of it."

"Work-for-hire is so much less risky than putting all your eggs in the IP basket"

Jason Pratt

Pratt adds: "I think that ratio -- work-for-hire versus owned IP -- is key to mitigating that risk. That work-for-hire is so much less risky than putting all your eggs in the IP basket. You've signed a contract, so you know you're going to get this revenue stream at that time."

Schell replies: "Yeah, the expectation with a traditional publishing deal is that you put in significant resources of your own and take significant risk, and if it goes badly you're going to suffer significantly. We haven't done those traditional publisher deals. Instead, we do work-for-hire deals. There is risk with work-for-hire deals -- I want to be really clear about that -- but if you manage them well there's a lot less risk. Managing those well can help mitigate risk, and self-publishing when we are going to do our own stuff. But if we weren't excellent at project management, we'd be in trouble."

Stability is important to strive for in any industry, but for the folks at Schell Games it goes beyond just wanting to keep their jobs. All five developers that I spoke to agreed that the main reason they wanted to keep things as steady as possible was because they wanted to keep their internal teams together for as long as they could.

Schell Games' portfolio is varied, including a mix of work-for-hire and original IP across VR titles, location-based experiences, and more traditional games

Schell Games' portfolio is varied, including a mix of work-for-hire and original IP across VR titles, location-based experiences, and more traditional games

"We have a strong belief that teams are stronger over time," Schell says. "I would say a typical number in the games industry is maybe 30% layoffs every three years, and when that happens you have talent and knowledge walk out the door. But the real problem is [with the remaining team] -- not only are they sort of shell-shocked and now worried about their jobs, but worse than that, all the expertise they built up working with those people now has no value, and now they have to build it with other people.

"If you keep a team together, they build up this ability to communicate with each other over time, and to build that, you have to defend them. So we haven't taken some big risks that some other places have taken, but we try to take some more calculated risks so that if things go really badly, it's not going to make us have to let go of people we really care about."

"A typical number in the industry is 30% layoffs every three years, and when that happens you have talent and knowledge walk out the door"

Jesse Schell

Patton adds a practical reason for this desire: "If you're making a bid for a project and you're estimating how long and you have a team that works together particularly well -- they know what they're good at, what they're not good at -- you can sort of predict the budget for the project that you're bidding on more accurately."

The focus on its team-oriented structure is key at Schell Games, with Schell noting that "good teams make good things" and that "people who are kind to other people are the best team members." He rejects what he suggests is a tendency in the industry for teams to be fractured and competitive both within themselves and against other teams at the same company, and emphasizes team building and conflict resolution as core components of the company culture from the very start.

That means an emphasis on teamwork in the hiring process, according to Heller.

"We talk to people about how they handle challenging relationships they've had, how they want to work as a team, just ask them to walk us through their preferred practices in development to see if they like to work with people the way we do," she says. "That really reveals a lot, and is especially valuable here in the art department, because yeah, you're a great artist, but you're a really great teammate, and you work through things and you're not going to have an ego. When we get a bunch of people who want to work together and who are talented, they're going to do good work and they're going to be stronger because they aren't going to have tense relationships with each other."

She also adds that this is encouraged throughout training and employment, with an emphasis on direct communication and soft skills across all teams.

The others agree that these are critical in resolving conflict and maintaining the company's team-oriented culture. Conflict resolution, they say, is challenging both in and of itself, and because often in bigger companies those in positions to help sort out issues are unaware of those issues until they've escalated to a tipping point. To mitigate that, Schell Games has a number of feedback systems and other structures in place.

"We have a lot of different projects going on at once, and there is structure to the project team, and you have different discipline directors working with them, and then people working under them," Schell says. "But in terms of direct reports and who your manager is and who is managing those aspects of your career, that is often outside of that structure. Often your manager is not necessarily someone you're working with on the team. I think one advantage to that is it gives you this other avenue of working out issues. Your boss, who you need to support you, is not necessarily having conflicts at the team level. The support structure outside the team you're working with I think is helpful.

"Avoiding crunch starts with not normalizing it"

Shawn Patton

"The main thing to do in terms of conflict resolution is not to ignore the conflicts. You have to take time to communicate with the people involved in the conflict, and you have to be brave enough to have uncomfortable conversations. And even harder, you have to do it all in a way that makes everyone feel respected. It's a lot of work, but in terms of the trust it builds, we always find it worth it in the long run."

"Something people hate about working in organizations is politics. And when you think about what that means, it's always a situation where someone wants to tell someone about a problem, but they couldn't because it would create a conflict they don't want to deal with. So instead of telling them about the thing, they go and tell somebody else. And now there are factions talking about each other and not talking to each other. So we've tried everything we can to not let those situations arise."

Specifically, Schell describes a feedback system in place for employees to comment to managers about both positive and negative aspects about the teams they work with and the places where they feel they need the most help. There's also a suggestion box that goes directly to Schell and allows him to reply to suggestions made by employees, but retains their anonymity throughout.

Those same processes, they tell me, are helpful for keeping the studio from falling into the habit of crunch.

"Avoiding crunch starts with not normalizing it," Patton says. "I know we mention not encouraging it during the interview process. We do our best to schedule projects with enough buffer time and contingency so that when things slip -- and they'll always slip -- we can absorb it without crunching. We work closely with our clients to set expectations about not crunching and we push back if they encourage it. It takes a whole company culture and lots of planning to combat it really."

Heller adds: "The company leadership also openly talk with team leadership regularly about where they are at in development, and help make hard calls or adjustments to scope along the way."

Gordon concludes: "Project leaders are expected to touch base with folks on their team in one-on-one meetings periodically. One of the goals of these meetings is to ask how the project is going and if someone is feeling overwhelmed. Getting folks away from their desks and talking about the project beyond their current task gives them time to reflect.

"Projects come and go, but the people you work with are always there"

Shawn Patton

"When crunch does happen, we make an effort to call it out as a downside of a project and look into how it happened, and how we could avoid it on future projects. To ignore it is to tacitly endorse it."

Patton also mentions that regular meetings don't just address the progress of a certain project, but also how well the processes for getting that project done are working.

"The primary objective of those one-on-ones is to root out issues that may be festering within the project," he says. "It's not necessarily to talk specifically about the work someone's doing. They just have a conversation in that setting where things can be brought to light. And I feel like all these things we're talking about -- crunch, conflict resolution, personality stuff -- it all to me falls under the banner of culture. The challenge that we rise to is to make sure we keep doing the work to keep the studio culture alive."

Reflecting overall on the ideas of culture, avoiding crunch, and resolving conflict, Gordon reiterates the importance of the human beings at the center of it all.

"A pet theory I've been working on is that people derive their passion for what they're working on from three different areas. The first is the product; what are we building? The second is the work itself; the nuts and bolts. And the last is the people you work with. And over time, a thing I've seen in so many people that I manage is that the thing that's most important for them over time is the people they work with.

"Initially, they're really excited about the product they're working on, but over time people come to see the value of the people they work with, the day-to-day interactions they have with those they enjoy being around. And that seems to be a cornerstone that we build around at Schell Games."

"Projects come and go," Patton concludes. "But the people you work with are always there."

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